Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Source of the Suspense

We have reached our very last installment in 'The History of' series and, as they say in the song...'We saved the best for last'.

Webster's Dictionary defines the word suspense as: a state of mental uncertainty, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety.
The word suspense is quite old and can be traced back to Latin roots dating between 1375 and 1425. But, where did the suspense genre get its beginnings and how has it changed in the years since its debut? I sincerely hope we can answer those questions with as little anxiety as possible.
There are many genres that contain suspenseful undertones and as confusing as it may sound, a suspense can be a thriller, mystery, detective fiction or even a horror. A suspense may contain all of these elements or none.
As with many genres, the exact origins of the suspense are a bit hazy but there are several places that could have easily been a good starting point.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, written sometime between 1300 & 1000 BC, tells a tale that had been handed down through generations from as far back as 2500 BC. On these twelve tablets made of clay, historians have discovered, what appears to be, the origins of several literary genres, include suspense. Many years would pass before other writers would give the world their contributions in the suspense genre.
Homer was an ancient Greek epic poet who was born between 850 & 1180 BC. His works begin to show up at the beginnings of the Western Canon of literature. Homer's epic poem, Odyssey, would help to mold and shape the literary world and even today, holds great sway in the writing community.
Another well known collection of stories that easily boasts some suspenseful moments is One Thousand and One Nights. The oldest known manuscript of One Thousand and One Nights, dates back to the 14th century but, scholars believe that the story told in its text, date back to the 9th century.
A plethora of other writers would emerge in the following years until finally, one would step fourth in the 1800's and give the world its first real taste of the suspense novel. In 1829, a Danish author by the name of Stech Steenson Bilcher, wrote a novella that has been billed as the first, true murder mystery and contained within its pages, all the workings of what would become, the suspense genre.
The next in line was Alexander Dumas, who's first works of suspense were published in June of 1844 and introduced readers to d'Artagnan. The Three Musketeers, was a huge success and soon two other books were added to the series that came to be known as, The d'Artagnan Romances. Dumas would again leave his mark, not only on literature, but on the suspense genre as well, with one of his most famous works. The Count of Monte Cristo was published between 1844 and 1846 and remains, to this day, one of the great classic suspense novels in literary history.
Wilkie Collins introduced us to his novel The Woman in White, in 1860. He would then follow it up in 1868 with, what many consider his finest work, The Moonstone, all the while giving us his own take on the suspense genre.
In 1866, Victor Hugo, known for his masterpiece Les Miserables, released his novel Les Travailleurs de le Mer (Toilers of the Sea). A broad step away from his previous novel, Toiler of the Sea, contained all the suspense that lovers of the genre could ever ask for.
Of course, we cannot talk of suspense without throwing in one of the true greats in literary history... Mr. Edgar Allen Poe. Poe's incredible pieces have shown up in almost every genre that we have discussed and suspense is no different. The Murders in the Rue Morgue, while billed as mystery, easily slips into the suspense genre as does his haunting classics, The Tell-Tale Heart and The Raven.
Thousands of authors have written books that are categorized as thrillers, romantic thrillers, mysteries, detective fiction and even horror and all have a common theme... a degree of apprehension or anxiety that draws them into the suspense genre.
During the late 1880's, the introduction of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, brought a surge in readers not only to mysteries and detective novels but to suspense as well.
Sales of the suspense genre began to skyrocket as the Golden Age of Detective Fiction emerged in the 1920's. Famous writers such as, Dame Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers left their pen strokes vividly displayed, not only in the detective fiction genre but also, in the ever growing world of suspense.
Soon, suspense began to take on a much more sinister, psychological approach when, in walked Sir Alfred Hitchcock. With him, Hitchcock brought the ability to toy with our emotions and raise our anxiety levels and he did so in a most unusual way... on film. Starting in 1927 in silent films and continuing on through 1976, Alfred Hitchcock became the premier writer/director/producer and is still known today, impressively, as The Master of Suspense.
Dozens of authors have written in the suspense genre and made big names for themselves along the way. Mary Higgins Clark, Dean Koontz, Stephen King, David Baldacci, Tasha Alexander, John Carpenter, Gregg Olsen and Michael Palmer are just a small sampling of well knowns who's books have flirted with the suspense genre.
The film industry took hold of suspense enthralled consumers and gave them a wellspring of anxiety and mental uncertainty in the form of feature length films and TV shows.
In 1990, David Lynch introduced his psychological suspense series Twin Peaks, causing audiences to clamor for the answer to the question, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” What transpired as a result of this suspense TV series was, an almost cult-like following of viewers from around the world. I too, must confess to being a member of the millions who tuned in and hung on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what else Mr. Lynch had in store for us. Even today, Twin Peaks, is still listed as one of the Top 100 TV Shows of all time.
Other writer/directors have preyed on us with their suspense laden movies and the likes of Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese and M. Night Shyamalan have become household names. Bringing us such suspenseful movies as, Eyes Wide Shut, The Shining, Shutter Island and Signs these writer/directors find a way to torment their viewers and keep them coming back for more.
With a rich history dating back thousands of years, the suspense genres appears determined to remain with us for many more years to come. Today you can pick out thousands of books or movies devoted to the edge of your seat suspense we have all grown to love.
From the music that plays in the background of your favorite movie, to that long, agonizing walk to your mailbox in search of a dreaded letter; suspense is all around us. The suspense genre has become a meshing together of all the things that we, as readers, hold near and dear.
The suspense genre can be mysterious, thrilling, romantic or even, a little horrifying. So, what is the deciding factor that truly says suspense...YOU, the reader. Who better to judge the feelings that a piece of literature invokes than the very person who is doing the reading?
While many would argue the origins of the suspense genre, the truth of it is only known by those who's heart race and anxiety levels rise while delving into that TV series, movie or great piece of literature.

CK Webb